The June 2012 issue of the Index discussed how achievement in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) can support a robust innovation ecosystem. Degrees in these fields are in high demand as companies seek to harness technological advancements and R&D breakthroughs. By calculating total STEM degrees as a percentage of all degrees, states can track the growth of students in this category. In 2011, Illinois’ total STEM degrees (including bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorates and doctorate equivalents) made up 23 percent of all degrees conferred, just below the U.S. total of 25 percent. (See “About the research” below to learn more about our methodology and analysis.)
A resurgence in STEM attainment
Undergraduates with STEM degrees represent a potential infusion of educated workers into the labor pool. STEM bachelor’s degrees account for nearly 60 percent of all STEM degrees in Illinois, and, at the beginning of the decade, the number of STEM degrees conferred as a percentage of all bachelor’s degrees in Illinois was on par with the national average. The aftermath of the dot-com bubble may have contributed to an overall decrease in STEM degrees, especially in Illinois where computer science–related degrees plummeted dramatically in the years that followed, hitting a low in 2007 (four-year degrees naturally lag behind economic trends).The decrease was especially sharp in Illinois because computer science degrees constitute a larger portion of all STEM bachelor’s degrees granted in the state than in the United States as a whole. A pronounced uptick in the past two years in computer science and nursing degrees has enabled Illinois to draw closer to the national level of STEM bachelor’s degrees conferred as a percentage of all bachelor’s degrees.”
Growth in key subject areas
The total number of STEM bachelor’s degrees increased by more than 3,000 in Illinois over the past decade, reflecting the high demand for health professionals and an increased emphasis on STEM to support business operations in areas such as IT and biosciences. A closer look at STEM categories during this period reveals that in spite of a steady increase in the number of degrees granted, the portion of STEM bachelor’s degrees in Illinois has remained static. Significant growth in a number of STEM areas, especially health degrees, has enabled Illinois to return to a rate of STEM degree conferrals that equals the rate at the beginning of the decade. Particularly impressive is the growth in health degrees due to a boom in nursing degrees: the number of nursing bachelor’s degrees granted more than doubled from 2001 to 2011, jumping from 1,542 at the beginning of the decade to more than 3,200 degrees in 2010–2011. Biological and biomedical sciences also grew consistently during this period. The lone exception, computer and information sciences and support services, experienced a pronounced decline mid-decade before rebounding. As the exhibit below shows, the number of graduates in computer science and support services has increased by more than 800, or 51.5 percent, since their lowest point in 2007.
Building on Illinois’ momentum
Coordinated efforts will be required to meet the rising demand for qualified workers with STEM degrees. Programs that promote STEM fields to students as well as public-private partnerships that tailor curricula to prepare students for specific fields will be instrumental for Illinois to sustain STEM growth in the coming years.
About the research
For this year’s analysis of STEM data, we refined our approach to provide a more comprehensive picture of Illinois’ performance. To that end, we departed from last year’s decision to focus exclusively on non-health-related STEM degrees and factored in health professions and related programs. In doing so, we have stayed close to the National Center for Education Statistics’ (NCES) Digest of Education Statistics on STEM attainment but made a few adjustments to make the data more precise. We included only STEM-intensive health care-related degrees, added agricultural sciences, and refined the definition of programs included under “engineering.”
The health degrees we have excluded relate to health care administration services because these courses of study do not emphasize scientific or mathematical skills. Since degrees in the agricultural sciences test and/or impart scientific and mathematical skills, we have included degrees in animal and plant sciences in our definition of STEM. Furthermore, we have refined the calculation of “engineering” degrees by removing figures related to “mechanic and repair technologies/technicians; and construction trades.” Finally, this year our calculation of total STEM degrees granted does not factor in associate’s degrees. This change was made to provide a more focused perspective on types of STEM degrees that require a high level of proficiency in science and mathematics. The quarterly issue will examine associate’s degrees.
In addition, the NCES defines doctoral degrees as “Ph.D., Ed.D., and comparable degrees at the doctoral level. Includes most degrees formerly classified as first professional, such as M.D., D.D.S., and law degrees.”
Due to this series of changes in methodology, this year’s figures are not directly comparable to those in the June 2012 Index.
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Illustration by Dieter Braun